The weekly spin: Off-camber thoughts on a dramatic cyclocross worlds

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The emotion on Lucinda Brand’s face was unmistakable. Those were not tears of joy on the podium, but rather tears of disappointment — tears of what might have been.

The Dutch rider had taken a career-best finish at the Cyclocross World Championship, a silver medal to better her bronze from one year earlier.

But Brand, the Dutch national champion and winner of three World Cup races this season, was racing for gold. She’d shown she was the strongest woman in the field one week earlier, at the World Cup finale in Hoogerheide, and she topped most lists of pre-race favorites to take the rainbow jersey.

That Brand, 29, would be viewed as the five-star favorite made sense in some ways, but less so in others. A relative newcomer to cyclocross, the 2018-19 season was just her third complete season at the elite level. And as powerful as she is, Brand did not arrive at the start in Bogense, a small fishing village in Denmark, with the experience of compatriot Marianne Vos, a seven-time world cyclocross champion at age 31, or even comparable to 28-year-old Sanne Cant, the two-time defending champion and three-time World Cup series winner.

Lucinda Brand (Netherlands) could not hide her disappointment in a silver medal.

Pressure is all relative, of course, but it’s perhaps no higher than on a pre-race favorite trying to accomplish something for the first time, on a national team stacked with top contenders, on the sport’s biggest stage.

Brand was the strongest woman in the race. The Dutch women had the strongest team. Surely the rainbow jersey would be coming home to the Netherlands, right?

Wrong. The rainbow jersey would stay in Belgium, on Sanne Cant’s shoulders, for a third consecutive year.

Brand wasn’t the only rider on the podium with a glum face; Vos could not disguise her disappointment, both over her own deficiencies on the day, but also that her national team had finished second through fifth, but not taken gold.

Cant’s defeat of the Dutch women, aided by a botched bike swap, was the biggest story of a 2019 Cyclocross World Championships filled with great storylines.

Just as he’s been all season, Mathieu Van der Poel (Netherlands) was in a class of his own at the elite men’s world championship race.

Dutch star Mathieu van der Poel, who had won 26 of 28 races this season, took his second elite men’s world title, four years after his first rainbow jersey, ahead of perennial rival Wout van Aert, the world champ for the past three years. Van Aert challenged Van der Poel early, bridging across on the third of 12 laps, but a slip across the course’s decisive off-off-camber section created a gap the Belgian would never close.

The Dutch U23 women swept the podium, with pre-race favorite Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado unable to take the rainbow jersey as expected. Instead, Inge Van der Heijden took the win just ahead of Fleur Nagengast, with Alvarado in third. Alvarado, the U23 European champion and U23 World Cup series winner who finished in the top five of four World Cups this season, said strong winds had made it difficult to break away, and that she ultimately didn’t have the legs to win.

Inge van der Heijden (Netherlands) on her way to the U23 women’s rainbow jersey gold medal.

On Saturday, British men won both the junior and U23 races, with Ben Tullett defending his junior title and Tom Pidcock riding away from the field, similar to Van der Poel’s solo exploit, to take a convincing win ahead of two-time U23 world champion and arch-nemesis Eli Iserbyt of Belgium.

Tullett became only the second junior man to defend his title, Mathieu van der Poel being the other. Pidcock’s win was yet another feather in his cap, to add to his road wins at the junior world time-trial championship and junior Paris-Roubaix.

A dominant Ben Tulett (Great Britain) won the junior men’s race.

In fact, Van der Poel pointed to Pidcock’s demonstrative victory as proof that the wind didn’t have to play a decisive factor.

“The wind is not necessarily a disadvantage for me, I’ve learned from the other categories that you can also ride away if you’re the best,” Van der Poel told Sporza before the elite men’s race. “Just look at Pidcock. I do not really have a plan, just make the race hard.”

That tactic wouldn’t work in the elite women’s race, however, with six riders pegged as potential winners, and another six women capable of reaching the podium.

A consistent lack of control

It was cold. It was windy. The course was slick, and fast. And from the start, it was clear the race was not going Lucinda Brand’s way.

On the first of seven laps, as the Dutch and Belgian teams amassed at the front, Brand was already down, having slipped on the slick, wet course while sitting in sixth position. She slipped and slid her way through the second lap as well before putting in a massive effort to bridge across on Lap 3; she then promptly lost traction on the course’s defining off-camber section.

At the race’s midway point, Brand was still in chase mode, with Nikki Brammeier of Great Britain on her wheel.

Up ahead, Vos was flanked by Cant and Dutch teammates Denise Betsema and Annemarie Worst, as well as Swiss mountain-bike star Jolanda Neff racing in her first cyclocross world championship, starting in the fourth row.

Questions as to whether or not the Dutch team would race as a unit, versus every rider for herself, seemed to be answered early on when Worst chased down Betsema on the first lap, closing the gap for Cant.

By the end of the fourth lap Brand had caught on again, while Neff had slipped out of the lead goup and Brammeier had been stopped by a stuck chain. The front group was down to five riders, and four of them — Brand, Worst, Betsema, and Vos — were Dutch. Cant was alone and outnumbered, but she hadn’t made a move wrong all race, while Brand had proven so strong that she was able to come back from a poor start and several mishaps. But would she pay for it on the final two laps?

She would, but in a way that no one could have expected.

After crashing and chasing back on several times, Lucinda Brand (Netherlands) led Sanne Cant (Belgium) on Lap 5 of 7.

By the end of the fifth lap Brand was at the front of the lead group, pushing the pace and putting her teammates into difficulty. Into Lap 6 of 7, she went into the mechanical pit for a bike swap. She exited the pit with a new bike, but only after falling hard to the ground, dropping back to fifth place, and losing precious time and momentum.

I’ll dissect exactly what happened further down, but for the moment I’ll say this: On the international race broadcast and across Twitter, there was a sentiment that the pit mishap was not Brand’s fault, and that it cost Brand the win. I don’t believe either of those suggestions are accurate.

Just as it’s incorrect to pin a loss on a missed field goal in the closing seconds of a 60-minute NFL game — every possession is an opportunity to turn things around — it’s incorrect to blame one incident on a nine-second loss across a 45-minute race. Had Brand not spent the first half of the race slipping and sliding and chasing back on, it’s impossible to know whether that mishap would have happened at all, or what her position might have been when it did.

Simply put, the pit mishap didn’t cost her the rainbow jersey; a consistent lack of control throughout the race did.

By contrast, Cant never bobbled. She never panicked. She was flawless with her bike exchanges and across the course’s treacherous off-camber section. She followed the right wheels, and she attacked at the right moment. Cant rode a perfect race, and was the deserving winner. Brand was strongest, but she took herself out contention on several occasions.

Sanne Cant (Belgium) finished alone to take a third consecutive world title.

Anyhow — back to the final two laps. Though it clashed with her pre-race strategy to wait until the last lap, Cant sensed her opportunity when Brand went down, and attacked.

“At two laps to go I had just a small gap,” Cant said. “It wasn’t part of my plan, it was difficult to decide if I should wait or try to stay with the four Dutch riders, but it was the right tactic.”

Vos, visibly struggling, helped pace Brand back to Worst and Betsema. Into the final lap Cant led the four Dutch riders by just six seconds. And while the winds off the Baltic Sea could have made the difference between a solo rider and a concerted chase, there was not enough cohesion within the Dutch team to shelter Brand for a late-race surge.

Instead, she slowly picked her way back to the front and chased, though it was in vain as she slipped on the final off-camber section. Cant, who won no World Cup races all season for the first time in five years, took the rainbow jersey by nine seconds, proving that the strongest rider doesn’t always win in cyclocross.

Cant was elated. The Dutch were embarrassed. From a tactical standpoint, they had blown it.

“We tried what we could. I didn’t have much more left, so I did what I could,” Vos said. “You obviously hope for more, but this was all I could do.”

That costly bike swap

While race commentator Simon Burney was quick to lay blame on Brand’s pit mechanic — her father, Fred — saying he’d cost her the world title, Adam Myerson, an American cyclocross coach and multiple-time masters national champion, wrote on Twitter that the mistake belonged to the rider, not the mechanic.

“Even if the mechanic grabbed her bars early, she was quite clearly still attached to her bike, and tripped herself,” he wrote. “You can’t step off a bike you’re still clipped in to.”

I pressed him for a further explanation — isn’t there a responsibility on the mechanic to read the rider’s body, and to be sure they’ve dismounted before grabbing the bike?

Not exactly, he explained. “The mechanic is standing still,” he replied. “The rider has to get the timing right, like a barrier. You don’t want a moving mechanic. There is some reading [of the rider], of course, but not for something this catastrophic. He can’t see she’s still clipped in, only that she’s stepping off. He caught the bike when it came to him, as expected. She shouldn’t still have been attached to it.”

Video: Highlights from the 2019 elite women’s cyclocross world championship.

Brand was quoted as blaming her father for the mishap, adding that she would “have to forgive him,” providing instant headline fodder across the internet.

“My father grabbed my bike from my hands just a second too early, but my foot was still stuck in,” Brand told Sporza. “Then I was pulled down. But I will have to forgive him, otherwise we will not be able to sit down together during Christmas. Of course he didn’t do it on purpose.”

I also reached out to Mark Legg, Katie Compton’s husband and longtime mechanic — and a former world-class cyclocross racer himself — to ask what exactly goes into a bike swap, and his take on where the fault lies in that very consequential incident.

“Basically it’s like two people in a car crash with differing accounts until they see video of the crash,” Legg said. “Lucinda is fairly new to cyclocross. Remember all the mistakes you would make in your first three years of cyclocross? We all made them. Her dad doesn’t move forward to ‘grab’ the bike. He stays still, so it’s on Lucinda on the timing for the drop-off.

“Her shoes have mud on them, which can hinder the release. She has some of her weight on the brake hoods, so she’s standing heavy on the left pedal. She doesn’t ‘pop’ off the pedal. She twists and rotates as she tries to release out of the pedal. The cleat hangs up in the pedal and she goes down. It wasn’t the bike-catcher’s fault. This is why Katie places her hand on the top tube, to weight the top tube to help her unweight her left foot for a ‘pop’ off the pedal.”

While an argument could be made that Brand’s father grabbed the bike early, it’s only because she should have been unclipped and dismounted by then, which is what he was expecting. She was slow to dismount; her timing threw him off.

It’s a bit of a dance, no doubt, but surely the rider has more time to set up for the bike swap than the mechanic.

Did it cost Brand the rainbow jersey? A late-race incident can always be viewed as more consequential than an early race incident, but Brand was never in control of this world championship.

Sanne Cant (Belgium) ahead of Marianne Vos (Netherlands) en route to a third world title.

Looking forward to 2022

There was other big news to come out of Denmark, and it involves the future of international cyclocross.

The UCI Management Committee convened in Bogense, and made several major announcements. The 2022 UCI Cyclocross World Championships have been awarded to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Elite women’s cyclocross races will extend to 50 minutes beginning in the 2020-21 season. It will be compulsory for events on the UCI International Calendar to include a junior women’s race as of the 2021-2022 season.

The UCI views these announcements as a continuation of progress made over the last 12 months: equal prize money paid in the men’s and women’s World Cup general classifications, which began this season; the introduction of the junior women’s category at the 2020 UCI World Championships and the UCI World Cup from 2020-2021; equal prize money paid by the organisers of every round of the World Cup for the men’s and women’s categories by the 2021-2022 season.

The Fayetteville announcement marks the return of the biggest annual event in the discipline to a country that last held the UCI World Championships in 2013, in Louisville, Kentucky; it will be the second time the championships have been held in the United States.

BikeNWA, a Northwest Arkansas-based nonprofit that has fostered a thriving cycling culture in the Northwest Arkansas region for several years, leads a coalition of community partners in organizing the 2022 cyclocross worlds. Thanks to a grant provided to BikeNWA by Steuart Walton and Tom Walton — grandsons of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart — the event will be the culmination of a four-year plan to bring world-class cyclocross racing to the region.

That plan includes cultivating the local cyclocross scene through infrastructure development and education, as well as bringing national-level cyclocross events to Northwest Arkansas leading up to the 2022 worlds.

Co-managing the Fayetteville 2022 organization and serving as race director will be Brook Watts, familiar to cyclocross fans for bringing the first UCI Cyclocross World Cup event to the United States, in Las Vegas in 2015. Watts also manages the Waterloo World Cup, owned by Trek.

By the time those 2022 world championships come to the United States, Van der Poel and Van Aert will have permanently switched over to the road, and will be duking it out at the spring classics. Pidcock will be 22, and among the top elite men in the world. And based on the Dutch women’s performances in Bogense — top three in the U23 race, four of the top five in the elite race — it’s fair to say orange skinsuits will once again be all over the front of the women’s races.

But will they ride as a team, or as individuals? Will they support their best rider, even if it means sacrificing their own success? At cyclocross worlds, that can mean the difference between a rainbow jersey and tears on the podium.

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